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Voters To Decide Aging Department Creation

October 9, 1996
By: ELIZABETH McKINLEY
State Capital Bureau

JEFFERSON CITY - On November 5, Missouri voters will have the chance to create a new department - an Aging Department - to serve the state's one million senior citizens.

The new department would function exactly the same as the current Division of Aging, which operates as one of nine divisions under the Social Services Department.

But supporters argue a stand-alone department would give elderly issues a stronger voice with the governor since department directors report directly to the governor.

"We need a voice at the governor's table," said Erma Cunningham, Missouri state legislative committee of AARP chairperson.

The issue: whether creating another government agency will benefit seniors more and whether an Aging Department will cost taxpayers any more money.

Lt. Gov. Roger Wilson, chief proponent of the referendum, said an Aging Department will cost no more than the division already does.

During the last session, lawmakers passed enabling legislation to impose a limit on the Aging Department's work force if voters approve creating the department.

The cap, which could be changed by the legislature at any time, would limit the number of full-time employees the department could employ to 725 -- only slightly larger than the Aging Division's current staffing level.

The Aging Department would be the only one of the state's 16 agencies to have a legislative cap, restricting employee numbers and consequently, funds to the department unless the legislature approved the changes.

Wilson said this caps will prevent and Aging Department from costing taxpayers any more money than the division.

But Sen. Bill Kenney, R-Lee's Summit, said the cap easily could be removed by the legislature and changed without a statewide vote.

Kenney said creating another bureaucracy is not the answer. He said making an Aging Department is purely political.

"It's a political more during an election year," he said. "Twenty percent of voters are senior citizens."

Kenney, who is challenging Wilson for re-election as lieutenant governor, said bigger government will not necessarily mean more efficiency. He said lawmakers should instead concentrate on how to make the division more efficient.

But Wilson said a new department would eliminate clogs in the current system.

"The Division of Aging is one of nine (divisions in the Social Services Department)," he said. "It is very tough to get through the bureaucracy of the Department of Social Services."

Aging Division Director Greg Vadner said because of an expected increase in the aging population in the next few years, more people would need services from the division. He said more questions and needs regarding Medicare would arise with more older citizens in Missouri.

Vadner said he did not know if the current division could address these problems.

Wilson said seniors' questions and concerns would be addressed more quickly through a separate department.

In the last 16 years, there have been 14 different Division of Aging directors.

Wilson said the high turnover rate is symptomatic of inadequacies with the division.

"The division has an inadequate record of planning and preparation," Wilson said.

Cunningham, with AARP, said a department would create more stability to address older peoples' concerns.

She said when older persons call the Social Services Department about questions with services offered by the Aging Division, they often are referred to someone else.

"It's very confusing and frustrating to older people," she said.

Cunningham added she thought the majority of people who need help cannot access information.

But Kenney said a stand-alone department will not necessarily streamline concerns and problems within the division. Kenney said he suggested the Aging Division director should sit on the governor's cabinet, which would give the division a voice.

But Gov. Mel Carnahan's spokesman, Chris Sifford, said that idea is not realistic. Sifford said Kenney is just playing politics.